The Hungarian Jewish Community
By Steve Israel
Jews have lived in Hungary since the early Middle Ages and their history has been one of very mixed fortunes. On the whole, they should be considered as part of the Ashkenazi world that spread eastwards from the Germanic lands, but there are also elements of Sephardi Jewry, dating from the time when the country was largely ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Jews were a large and growing population in Hungary in the generations prior to The Second World War. Att the end of the eighteenth century, some 80,000 Jews lived in Hungary, but by the late 1860s the number had increased to around 540,000 – and, only forty years later, to some 900,000. In the inter-war period, sections of Hungary were transferred to other countries, such as: Rumania, Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia, and the Hungarian Jewish population therefore fell to around half a million. Parts of these areas were returned to Hungarian control through annexation in the early war period and, by 1941, the Jewish population stood at around one million.
The Shoah decimated the Jewish population of Hungary, murdering almost all the Jews outside the capital city of Budapest - and beginning the killings there too, but the Russians entered Budapest in time to stop the final annihilation of tens of thousands of Jews. At the end of 1945, only approximately 150,000 Jews remained in Hungary. Of these, many immigrated to Israel, but in 1949, when Hungary became a Communist regime, the size of the Jewish population was still very large. Under the systematic suppression of much of Jewish life by the Communists, the numbers of active Jews dwindled and many tried to erase their Jewishness and pass as “ordinary” Hungarians. This was not so difficult, given that all the traditional centres of Jewish life had been destroyed in the Shoah, and that the vast majority of the Jews survivors came from the highly assimilated Budapest Jewish community.
Hungary was the first communist country to allow some aspects of the free western economy and the Hungarian Jews, along with everyone else, began to benefit from this new freedom, and some formal Jewish life was re-established in Hungary as early as the late 1970s.
After Communism fell in Hungary, at the end of the 1980s, and Hungary became a democracy in the full sense, Jewish life experienced a revival and many people once again started to identify themselves as Jews.
Estimates of the numbers of Jews in Hungary vary between 50,000 and 200,000, which is related to the familiar issue of who is considered to be a Jew. Overall membership in Jewish community institutions of any kind lies somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000, while the current officially accepted statistic for the Jewish population of Hungary is around 50,000. But, if one counts all those who either subjectively view themselves as Jews, or are considered Jewish by their neighbours, we reach the upper limit previously mentioned: only about 40% of these persons have at least one Jewish parent. An increasingly common recent phenomenon is where people who have only a Jewish grandparent on one or both sides of the family come forward to identify themselves as Jewish.
Around 90% of all Hungarian Jews live in Budapest. The remainder are scattered in small communities in a couple of dozen locations in the Hungarian provinces.
Significant historical factors that impacted on the positive or negative migration of Jews to Hungary
From an examination of the history of the community, we can discern three major factors that have affected the outflow of Jews, while there has been relatively little inwards flow into the community:
1. The Shoah:
In the wake of the Shoah and the post-war pogroms that followed it in some locations, large numbers of Jews decided to leave Hungary for Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel - Mandate Palestine), or the countries of the West.
2. The 1956 revolution:
This was the famous abortive revolution which attempted to oust the Communists. The revolt was brutally supressed by the Soviet Union, and thousands of Hungarians fled the country, from disappointment, or fear of reprisals; many of these were Jews.
3. Aliyah to Israel:
Israel attracted numbers of Jews although, under Communism, Zionist activities inside Hungary and immigration to Israel were either prohibited, or at best restricted.
Main Occupations and Professions
After Hungarian Jewry was emancipated in 1867, Jewish participation in a number of fields, such as: communications, agriculture, transport and the Arts, supplemented the more traditional occupations in the sectors of commerce and finance.
Most of these sectors have remained central to Jewish life through today, augmented by academia and the liberal professions. Generally speaking, the majority of Jews tend to be well-educated and comfortable in economic terms, according to Hungarian standards, which are natureally far lower than the equivalent standards in the West. A recent survey suggests that over half of the adult Jewish community have a university degree which places their level of education well above the national average.
Streams and Movements of Judaism
Prior to the Emancipation and the Haskalah (Jewish, secularizing Enlightenment), the Hungarian Jewish community was mainly orthodox, with many ‘yeshivot’ and orthodox synagogues. The Emancipation brought with it the Enlightment, secularity, and a new movement known as Neolog Judaism.
Since the late nineteenth century, the Hungarian Jewish community leadership has come from the group known as the Neolog Jews (traditional, somewhere between Conservative and Reform Judaism). After the Emancipation, the community split into three distinct groups of which the Neologs and the Orthodox were the more important. Most of the major institutions were Neolog, including the monumental Dohany Synagogue, the second largest synagogue in the world, and the vast Kozma St. Cemetery, where the bourgeois leaders of Neolog Jewry were buried in extremely impressive (not at all typically Jewish) burial structures. Orthodox Jewry (including some important Chassidic groups) was essentially killed off by the Shoah, having been located primarily in the provinces, where Jewish life was all but totally annihilated.
After the Second World War, as Jewish life reemerged, almost all of those who wished to continue to identify as Jews in any religious sense affiliated with the Neolog stream. Nowadays, only a small minority of identifying Jews go to synagogue, although the number is not negligible. There exists a choice of some twenty working synagogues in Budapest, some of them very small, but others capable of attracting over a hundred people to a Friday night service. There is a small, but visible, Orthodox Jewish community in Budapest, with its own community institutions, and Chabad is active in the city. In 1996, Chabad published the first Hebrew Hungarian Siddur (prayer book) to be issued since the Second World War with an initial printing of 10,000 copies. The small Reform congregation established in the early 1990s has about fifty active families.
Education and Culture
Educational and cultural life is developing fast under the post-Communist regime. There are now three full time day schools in the community, one of which is Orthodox , one of which is secular (the Lauder Yavneh school, which moved to a new and impressive campus in 1996), and one of which, the Anne Frank community school (Neolog), operated under the Communist regime. There are also a number of kindergardens with several hundred children. In addition there is a (Neolog) Jewish Theological Seminary incorporating a teacher training college, the Pedagogium, and recently affiliated with the University of Budapest. All in all there are some 1800 students in all of these institutions, all of which are in Budapest. In the provinces there are some rudimentary attempts at part time education for the small communities.
At Szarvas, in Southern Hungary, there is a large Jewish campsite, which, has been operating for a number of years, hosting around 2,000 youngsters from former Communist countries in its annual summer camp. In addition, during the year, it hosts a number of activities.
In cultural terms, the Balint Club, a very vibrant Jewish Community Centre, was opened in 1994, the first full time J.C.C. in East Central Europe since the Second World War. It has a full time staff and runs, or is home to, several programmes, every day of the week. Large numbers of younger Jews come to the club - not specifically for Jewish programs, but to take part in general programs with other Jews of their age.
There are an increasing number of Jewish activities offered in a wide variety of forums in Budapest, although the numbers of younger people especially, tends to be on the low side. Worth mentioning specifically are: the Federation for the Preservation of Jewish Culture in Hungary, which had some 2,000 listed members in the late 1990s; Bnai Brith; the Hungarian Union of Jewish Students; and a range of Zionist Youth Movements. Every year, there are Jewish cultural and arts festivals, some of which are related to Israel.
Almost all the Jewish organisations and initiatives are products of the post-Communist years. There is also an independent Jewish monthly newspaper, critical of the community leadership.
As mentioned previously, the majority of Hungarian Jews are economically secure in Hungarian terms and enjoy a reasonable to good standard of living by Hungarian standards, which, it is important to emphasize, are not western. However, there are pockets of poverty and hardship especially among the elderly and the sick. The major organization that is directly involved in welfare work inside the community is the American Joint Distribution Committee that has been working in Hungary since the Second World War, sometimes openly and at times in a clandestine fashion. The JDC engages in very important welfare work among the poorer and more vulnerable elements of the community.
One factor which has improved the situation of some of the elderly is the reparation payments that have been made in recent years to Holocaust survivors and their families. However, the payments were considered by many to be insultingly low and were in fact rejected by many of the recipients. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that these payments, however small, have indeed improved the situation of some elderly Jews in the community.
The Jewish community of Hungary – and most especially that of Budapest – was in the process of assimilating strongly in the final years of the nineteenth century. Emancipation had brought the community close to non-Jewish society, which became a role model for many of the middle class Jews in the community. In the years immediately before the Second World War, when the Hungarian government introduced increasingly antisemitic legislation against the Jews, many Jews responded by converting to Christianity. This situation ended in 1941, when a law was promulgated, changing the definition of a Jew from a religious definition to a racial one, preventing intermarriage (and increasing the number of Jews considerably, by defining many converts from Judaism to Christianity, who now considered themselves Christians, as Jews).
Under the Communists, Jewish communal activity was repressed, and the phenomenon of “passing” as a Christian or non-Jew in Christian society was widespread. Many did not tell their children that they were Jews, while many others kept Judaism a family secret and instructed their children not to admit their Judaism in general society.
Since the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980s, the situation has changed markedly. Slowly and cautiously, many young people tested the waters and ventured out to identify, or re-identify, as Jews. However, it must be stressed that there are still many who refuse to identify as Jews - either because the link to a subjective feeling is simply too weak, or because they are still afraid of antisemitic response.
It should once again be mentioned that the majority of the Jews of Hungary (in the widest sense) come from intermarried families, or are themselves intermarried: it is hard to see that anything else might have been expected in the situation of post-war Jewry. There is, however, reason to believe that the future will, in this respect, be different from the past.
Physical Security and Antisemitism
If we go back in time, we can see that, right from the earliest periods of their history, Hungarian Jews were plagued by problems of Antisemitism from and within different sections of society. A mixture of theological and economic resentment caused periodic outbreaks of violence against the Jews and almost constant pressure on their communities. They suffered from all the ills of Jewish communities throughout Europe – persecutions and violence, blood libel accusations and expulsions.
If we restrict ourselves to the last two or three generations, the end of the First World War saw the establishment of a socialist republic in Hungary led by Bela Kun, a Jew; when it was brought down, a strong reaction against leftists and socialists led to a witch-hunt against Jews which caused the deaths of thousands. After this, matters calmed down, but Antisemitism was ever-present in the inter-war period - and from time to time this translated into anti-Jewish laws, creating immense hardship for the Jews.
In the period leading up to the Second World War, the laws against the Jews and the general anti-Jewish sentiment became much more pronounced. Fascist parties came to power, and the government, an official ally of the Nazis, finally moved directly against the Jews, paving the way for the murder of tens of thousands. As mentioned, the Shoah itself decimated the Jews of Hungary, with hundreds of thousands dying at their hands. The immediate post-war years saw a number of pogroms break out against the Jews, despite the fact that Antisemitism per se had been officially outlawed by the new government, who imprisoned many of those involved in the deportation and killings of Jews during the Second World War.
When the Communists came to power in 1949, many aspects of Jewish life were forcibly suppressed: in the early 1950s, tens of thousands of Jews were forced to leave the cities; legislation restricted the activities of openly identifying Jews. Jews had anything but an easy time under the Communists, despite the fact that there was comparatively little physical abuse in this period.
When Hungary became a democracy in 1989, restrictions were once again officially removed from Jewish community life, and from the Jews themselves. Nevertheless, social resentment lingered on among the county’s right wing groups, intensifying at times of social and economic discontent.
There has been a fair amount of vandalism in recent years. Community leaders have been suffering from phone call harassment; Jewish cemeteries have been damaged and antisemitic graffitti and daubings were sprayed on city walls. In 2002, a group of neo-Nazi bullies broke into a Chanukah party, threatening the guests; in 2004, a Hungarian poet accused the Jewish community of being "immoral".
It should be said that the Hungarian government is doing a great deal to fight Antisemitism, but the Jewish community feels increasingly vulnerable to what it considers as the rising tide of antisemitic activity.
The Community Agenda
There is no question that many of the community members would single out Antisemitism as their major problem.
The second major issue on the community’s agenda is unquestionably the ability of the old-new community to revive community institutions as vibrant organizations, and provide meaningful forms of Jewish life that will become the major factor in local Jewish identity, and bring many more Jews into the orbit of the community's institutions. This will demand not only time, but an inspired community leadership.
Major questions are raised about the capacity of the current cadre of older leadership, which still runs the community, to lead the community in these new directions. It might be that only a younger and fresher community leadership will be able to provide the necessary new directions. This remains to be seen.
The Future of the Community
The demographic trends in a Jewish community, such as Hungary, are particularly complex:
- There is great lack of clarity as to who should be considered part of the community.
- Official membership in Jewish institutions applies to only a minority of people who perceive themselves as Jewish.
- Moreover, many identify themselves as Jews, although they are not considered such, according to Halachah.
This being the case, it is difficult to address demographic trends in absolute terms. What makes more sense, perhaps, is to talk about the possibility of bringing more marginalized and non-involved Jews into greater involvement within the organized Jewish community. Here, the prognosis is visibly more promising. A major role in this process is being played by the education system, particularly the three day schools, which account between them for over 1,500 students, as well as the youth organizations and movements. All of these institutions are developing and expanding, both in terms of numbers and in terms of the quality of their Jewish programming. On the assumption that this trend continues, the demographic future of Hungarian Jewry gives reasons for optimism.
The Connection to Israel
As anti-Jewish legislation affected the population of Hungary in the 1930's, Zionism became popular and there was a degree Zionist Aliyah, but the major group of Hungarian Jews who came to Eretz Yisrael (Mandate Palestine) did so in the years following the Second World War, right up to the Soviet crack-down on Zionism and Jewish life in general, in 1949. In those years, several thousand Hungarian Jews made their way to Mandate Palestine and the fledgling State of Israel.
Since the fall of Communism, Hungarian Jewry Zionist organizations, such as youth movements, have developed, and the community has become conscious of Israel in many ways, sending groups of young people to seminars and activities in Israel. About 30,000 Jews have gone on Aliyah from Hungary since 1948.
The Jewish Community's Contribution to Hungary
There is no question that the Jews played a vital part in the transformation of Hungary into a modern state, in the framework of the Austro-Hungarian Empire - especially after 1867, when Hungary became an autonomous (self-ruling) part of the Empire, with its own constitution, at which point the Jews were emancipated and received equal rights, together with the rest of the population. It was in this period that the Jews became a major commercial and professional force (a bourgeoisie) within Hungary, in general, and most particularly, within Budapest. The Jews as a whole were transformed into a dynamic middle class, which helped propel Budapest's transformation into one of the major commercial cities in Central Europe. Jews also made their mark in this period in the field of science and medicine.
Jews also had an influence in the field of Hungarian literature. A large group of modern Hungarian literature are of Jewish origin. In 2002, the Jewish author Imre Kert’esz, a Shoah survivor, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, being the only Hungarian to have received this highly prestigious award.
General Information & History
Jewish Community website, history http://www.zsido.hu/english/history/
Beth Hatefutsoth, history
Lecture - history
World Jewish Congress – Hungary [profile] from http://www.worldjewishcongress.org/comm_east.html
History, places in Jewish Hungary, life today
Jewish Budapest, historically and today
The Pest Synagogue http://www.pestisul.hu/description.php
AJJDC (JDC) http://www.jdc.hu/
Education - Dialogue and Countering Antisemitism http://www.haver.hu/english_thefoundation.php
http://www.centropa.hu/ [in Hungarian, photos]
Jewish Meeting Point http://www.jmpoint.hu/index.php [in Hungarian]
Israeli students in Hungary http://www.isoh.info/ [English, Hebrew]
With thanks to Dr Rachel Korazim.